Black and white photojournalism by award winning photographer David Lee Longstreath
brother no. 2
When I photographed the body of the brutal Khmer Rouge despot Pol Pot in a Cambodian jungle hut back in mid-April 1998, what I saw was a dead old man with a bad haircut. I recalled that scene when I later met Nuon Chea, Pol Pot's right-hand man known as Brother No. 2.
I also wondered then how Nuon Chea had managed to escape trial for his role in the hardline-communist regime that terrorized Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 and killed between 1.7 million to 3 million people. Nuon Chea lived in a shack at the end of an overgrown one-lane dirt road in Pailin, Cambodia, when we met. Pailin was an isolated outpost when the Khmer Rouge ran things and despite new gravel roads, the town was still difficult to reach.
To get to Pailin, Associated Press reporter Shelly Culbertson and I first flew from Phnom Penh, the Cambodia capital, to Battenbang in western Cambodia aboard a rickety Russian AN-24 prop plane that had seen service in the Royal Cambodian Air Force. After a one-hour flight that passed over countless rice fields and rural roads, we met our driver and set off for Pailin the day before national elections. We traveled on a road filled with holes so large they could swallow pickups. Along the way, we saw constant reminders of the vicious fighting that had taken place between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese and Royal Cambodian armies. Several Soviet T-54 tanks destroyed by land mines or rocket-propelled grenades remained as silent witnesses to the violence. The bodies of numerous fallen soldiers rested in makeshift memorials along the road as well.
Around mid-afternoon Shelly and I arrived at the only hotel in Pailin, the Hang Means. We gathered in the hotel restaurant, also the only one in town, with our driver and interpreter. Shelly pushed our interpreter, known simply as Kava, to arrange an interview with Nuon Chea. Just an hour later we were at the former Khmer Rouge leader's modest home on a dirt road somewhere between Pailin and the Thai-Cambodian border. We climbed the stairs to the open front door where Kava introduced us to Nuon Chea and his wife. Hovering in the background were family members including grandchildren. We exchanged greetings in English. Shelly was eager to start the interview. She and Nuon Chea both spoke French, so it began quickly. Meanwhile, I thought about how to best capture the scene. It also was not clear how much time we would have. I wondered, too, how to photograph the tyrant who signed the death warrants of at least 14,000
Cambodians. I realized as Shelly asked Nuon Chea questions that it was simply a matter of "shoot what you see." Shelly finished her interview and before we left, I snapped a portrait of Nuon Chea and a man named Pon Lak that Nuon Chea had requested. I later learned that Pon Lak was the former leader's adopted son. The next day I photographed Cambodians voting in and around Pailin. I also took shots of the former Cambodian head of state Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea together casting their ballots. The election was held without violence. Democracy it seemed was being welcomed in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold.
As Shelly and I flew back to Phnom Penh, I told her that I thought that I had seen Pon Lak somewhere before. Checking my files after returning to Bangkok I was right. Pon Lak was the among young Khmer Rouge soldiers that I had photographed the day that I saw Pol Pot's body. I later discovered that he was the head of Khmer Rouge security at that time. Through Kava, I met and talked with Pon Lak on several more occasions. Pon Lak’s home is near the site where Pol Pot was cremated in Anlong Veng in the Khmer Rouge zone about 300 kilometers from Pailin. Pon Lak had close ties with Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan.
Both men are the oldest living members of the Khmer Rouge leadership, and both are now in jail for life for crimes against humanity.
David Lee Longstreath is a retired wire service photographer with more than 40 years experience on assignments around the world. He currently lives in upcountry Thailand.